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PLoS Genet. 2012 Feb;8(2):e1002474. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1002474. Epub 2012 Feb 9.

Gene expression and stress response mediated by the epigenetic regulation of a transposable element small RNA.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Genetics, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio, USA.


The epigenetic activity of transposable elements (TEs) can influence the regulation of genes; though, this regulation is confined to the genes, promoters, and enhancers that neighbor the TE. This local cis regulation of genes therefore limits the influence of the TE's epigenetic regulation on the genome. TE activity is suppressed by small RNAs, which also inhibit viruses and regulate the expression of genes. The production of TE heterochromatin-associated endogenous small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) in the reference plant Arabidopsis thaliana is mechanistically distinct from gene-regulating small RNAs, such as microRNAs or trans-acting siRNAs (tasiRNAs). Previous research identified a TE small RNA that potentially regulates the UBP1b mRNA, which encodes an RNA-binding protein involved in stress granule formation. We demonstrate that this siRNA, siRNA854, is under the same trans-generational epigenetic control as the Athila family LTR retrotransposons from which it is produced. The epigenetic activation of Athila elements results in a shift in small RNA processing pathways, and new 21-22 nucleotide versions of Athila siRNAs are produced by protein components normally not responsible for processing TE siRNAs. This processing results in siRNA854's incorporation into ARGONAUTE1 protein complexes in a similar fashion to gene-regulating tasiRNAs. We have used reporter transgenes to demonstrate that the UPB1b 3' untranslated region directly responds to the epigenetic status of Athila TEs and the accumulation of siRNA854. The regulation of the UPB1b 3' untranslated region occurs both on the post-transcriptional and translational levels when Athila TEs are epigenetically activated, and this regulation results in the phenocopy of the ubp1b mutant stress-sensitive phenotype. This demonstrates that a TE's epigenetic activity can modulate the host organism's stress response. In addition, the ability of this TE siRNA to regulate a gene's expression in trans blurs the lines between TE and gene-regulating small RNAs.

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